We all know the path into the woods pretty well by now. This is the third production I’ve seen of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s dark fairytale musical in the last eight months alone – yet this one has a wonder that sets it apart and makes it special. Directed by Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld of the U.S. ensemble Fiasco, it strips the piece back to its essentials, with a lovably homespun theatricality and performances of irresistible charm and verve. And in so doing, it reveals afresh its tenderness, enchantment, mischief and sparkle.
Derek McLane’s set design creates the show’s bewitching storybook world inside what seems to be a junk shop or perhaps a dusty attic, full of intriguing bric-a-brac and eerie atmosphere. There’s a grandfather clock that strikes out the first act’s series of midnight deadlines, against which the Baker (Steinfeld) and his Wife (Jessie Austrian) must strive to lift the curse that has left them childless. There are glinting, tarnished chandeliers, a forest of twisted ropes, a thicket of dangling harps; a battered, upright piano perches in the centre. There’s a wonderful, eclectic quality of raiding the dressing-up box to the action. The actors pluck up a French horn, a guitar or a cello to swell the simple keyboard-led rendition of the score, and snatch props and costumes as they switch roles. It’s storytelling in its purest and most delightful form – inventive, joyous, frill-free and thrillingly effective.
As for the performances, they are simply delicious. Steinfeld and Austrian (the latter actually pregnant in real life, adding extra poignancy to the couple’s plight and the second act’s parental terrors and bereavements) are warm and witty. Brody and Andy Grotelueschen are two entertainingly pompous princes, on their cantering broomstick hobby horses, as well as a pair of comical beasts: Brody a lascivious wolf with a moth-eaten taxidermy head, and Grotelueschen lugubrious as Milky White, the beloved cow belonging to Patrick Mulryan’s lanky Jack, a bravura blend of adolescent cockiness and vulnerability.
Claire Karpen embodies both innocence and experience, doubling as a wickedly wise Granny and an awakening beauty, Cinderella. And Emily Young not only gives us a Little Red Riding Hood who turns from skipping brat to thoughtful young woman, but makes the briefly sketched and usually rather bland Rapunzel one of the evening’s most memorable turns. Aloft in her stepladder tower, ecstatically unravelling her woolly yellow hair, she’s a vain, spoilt creature who, thanks to the punishments heaped upon her by Vanessa Reseland’s commanding Witch, goes quite horribly deranged before being squished beneath the feet of the raging Giantess. Young is both deliriously funny, and startlingly moving. Even Liz Hayes as Jack’s little-considered mother brings a note of wistful longing to her limited role. Never before have I been so struck by her throwaway lyric to her son, “Your mother’s getting older, your father’s not back.” Just for a second, there’s all the weariness of an abandoned single parent in those few, hasty words. And that’s what makes Fiasco’s version so outstanding: For all the artful bare bones of the production, it’s crammed with rich detail. Magical.